Jet lag is a common frustration for many travelers. We experience jet lag because our body’s natural rhythm has been thrown off by traveling through many time zones in a very short period.
There are many symptoms we may experience with jet lag, but the most difficult obstacle associated with air travel is the inability to fall asleep in the new time zone. We are unable to fall asleep because our body is used to producing melatonin at our old bedtime, not our new one. This will correct on it’s little by little every day, but we can assist our bodily rhythms and ensure a full night’s sleep by supplementing with melatonin. Adjusting your bodily cycles more quickly will also reduce the other symptoms of jet lag such daytime drowsiness, irritability, and disorientation.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced in our body by the pineal gland in the brain. It is normally secreted every night when daylight ceases and darkness sets in. Melatonin is usually not produced in the daytime because its presence in the bloodstream is meant to prepare us for sleep. Melatonin shuts off brain activity making us drowsy, less alert, and unable to concentrate. Melatonin draws hormones and oxygen from the cells and muscle tissue making it harder to be physically active; we become withdrawn, tired, and want to sleep.
When we suddenly shift to a new time zone, our production of melatonin no longer coincides with our schedule; you feel tired when you don’t want to sleep, and don’t feel tired when you want to sleep. It takes a number of days for our internal clock to adjust. Supplementing with melatonin will help the body’s internal clock to shift over to the new time zone, thus reducing the effects of jet lag.
How to Take Melatonin
You can find melatonin in doses from 1-10mg. Purchase the lowest dose you can find. The dosage of melatonin which has been shown to improve the quality and duration of sleep is between 1-5mg. Doses above 5mg appear to be no more effective in helping one fall asleep or stay asleep. Start with the lowest dose possible; you can even cut tablets in half or quarters if the dosage your purchased is too high.
It is recommended to take melatonin two days before your departure date to begin programming your body to its effects. This will help prevent the symptoms of jet lag and ensure you get a good nights sleep. In the days before departure, a dose of 0.5 – 1mg should be adequate.
When you arrive at your destination, take 2-3mg of melatonin before bedtime to alleviate jet lag symptoms.
For the purpose of reducing jet lag symptoms, the use of melatonin need not exceed four or five days. Depending on the number of time zones you have crossed you may not even need to take it this long. In general, it is not advised to use melatonin long-term (more than two weeks at a time) unless under the guidance of a health practitioner. Melatonin is not a cure for chronic sleep disorders, but it is safe and effective for short-term use.
Which Form of Melatonin Should You Use?
Various forms of melatonin supplements are available without a prescription in most drug stores. It is commonly sold in stores which sell nutritional supplements and can also be purchased from online retailers. Melatonin is available in tablets and can be found in regular, sub-lingual, and timed-release forms.
Sub-lingual or “fast-acting” tablets are preferred, as time-release formulas may cause daytime sleepiness. Sub-lingual tablets dissolve under the tongue. This means that the melatonin enters the bloodstream immediately and it can put you to sleep in as little as 15 minutes, so make sure you can be in bed soon after taking it.
Fast-acting of sublingual melatonin is also the best form to take if you wake in the night and cannot fall back asleep. Melatonin does have a very short half-life, and will not stay in your system for the entire night. In most people, this is not a problem, as it is more common to have difficulty falling asleep rather than staying asleep, but if you do wake up and are unable to fall back asleep you can take another dose or a half dose at this time. Don’t take melatonin if you wake up less than one hour before your desired wake up time.
Timed-release melatonin can be used if you are prone to wake up more frequently throughout the night and it takes one hour or more to fall back asleep. Since the time-released melatonin will not put you to sleep as quickly as the sub-lingual form you can take the timed-release tablet and also take a sub-lingual tablet, but try to keep the combined dosage low. Timed-release melatonin can last into the waking hours and can cause sleepiness, moodiness, or confusion. For this reason, it is best to avoid the timed-release form unless you are waking up many times in the night. Do not break the time-released melatonin tablets as it will ruin the time-releasing effects.
Tips on Using Melatonin
You will be producing melatonin at the wrong time of day until your rhythm adjusts completely, so it is a good idea to help your body along; you can assist your body to speed up its production of melatonin at the appropriate time by following the natural rhythms of your new time zone. Make sure you expose yourself to bright light and avoid dim lighting during the day. Exposure to light will suppress the production of melatonin in the daylight hours. Also, avoid bright lights at night, so you can begin to stimulate your production of melatonin. If you help your body in this way, it will take fewer days of melatonin supplementation to correct your sleep and wake cycle.
Never use melatonin during the daytime, this will throw off your body’s rhythm even more. Your body will be receiving conflicting messages; the daylight will tell you to wake up, and the melatonin will send a darkness signal indicating it is time to sleep. If you disrupt your cycle in this way, it will make it even harder to get to sleep later. Also, because melatonin causes us to withdraw and go into hibernation mode, the use of melatonin in daytime hours can cause mood changes and depression.
Side Effects of Melatonin
Effects of melatonin are minimal if taken appropriately. Effects are temporary and may be relieved by lowering the dosage. Side-effects will disappear once you have stopped taking melatonin.
Reported side effects include: nausea, diarrhea, headaches, mood changes, decreased sex drive, daytime fatigue, and vivid dreams or nightmares.
Contraindications for Using Melatonin
- Melatonin should not be taken by anyone under the age of 18
- Do not take melatonin if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive. Use of melatonin is not advised for individuals who have epilepsy, depression, or severe mental illness. It is also advised not to take melatonin if you suffer from migraines, diabetes, eye disease, or liver disease.
- Do not take melatonin if you are on anti-depressants, blood thinning medications, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Do not drive or operate heavy machinery after taking melatonin.
More Tips on Reducing Jet Lag
Melatonin is an excellent aid for reducing symptoms of jet lag; however, your ease of adapting to your new time zone can be increased by following a few simple tips. For additional advice on how to minimize the effects of jet lag, please read: How to Eliminate Symptoms of Jet Lag.
- Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. (2002). Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews;(2):CD001520.
- K. Petrie, J. V. Conaglen, L. Thompson, K. Chamberlain. (1989)Effect of melatonin on jet lag after long haul flights. The British Medical Journal; 298.6675.705
- Apollo Health. How-to-use-melatonin-correctly. http://www.talkaboutsleep.com.
- SLTBR. Questions and Answers about Melatonin. http://www.sltbr.org/melfaq.htm
Photo: Michelle Greene